Basic Learner Level Skills Part 3: Group Instruction

As an early childhood special education teacher, each year I have visions of a smooth-running circle and group instruction time.  Sometimes the year started off calm and structured and some years my circle time took longer to get there…and that’s ok!  To me, a “smooth” circle and group instruction time is when my kiddos are physically interacting within the activity area.  You might have a new student who joins your class mid-year who does not yet have the basic learner skills of group instruction and that’s what we are looking at today! If you are new to basic learner skills, check out my last two posts here and here.


Group instruction basic learner skills

Let’s take a look at the skills needed to actively participate in group instruction.  This includes being able to sit appropriately, attend to a teacher and others, follow instructions, taking turns, raising your hand, and acquiring new skills.  That’s a lot when you think about it and write them out like that, especially for our kiddos who have never been in a structured type setting.  If you are familiar with the Assessment of Basic Language and Learner Skills (ABLLS), each task within a domain such as group instruction, has a criteria box.  This can be incredibly helpful when trying to figure out where to start with skills.  For example, the first task in group instruction is “sits appropriately in small group”. But what does that mean? What’s the criteria? The first even recordable criteria are that the student can sit appropriately for 5 minutes in a group of 1:2. You might have a kiddo that does not yet stay in the appropriate area for even 30 seconds.  You want to take note of this baseline and slowly work up from there.  Next are some best practices for setting up a successful group instruction time and then what to do in the meantime as you progress through these skills!

Setting up a successful group instruction time

Disclaimer: we need to think about where kiddos are developmentally and not just chronologically.  This means that if you’re in early childhood and working with three- and four-year-old’s, but you have some kiddos developmentally around 18 months, this needs to be accounted for when planning.  If you think a kiddo that is three years old but on an 18-month-old developmentally should be able to sit for 20 minutes in circle time, you will be putting an incredible amount of unnecessary stress on yourself and the student.  This does not mean you do not set high expectations; it just gives you a different lens on why you are seeing certain behaviors.  Using a mixed circle time routine is also helpful with littles ones.  You mix sitting time with movement activities. This keeps kiddos engaged and is appropriate for their age level.  When I think about the supports that are best practices for all children, I think of a visual group schedule, physical structure to define a specific area, a set but flexible routine, and additional visuals based on the needs of your students such as: their picture on their cube chair, a board with student pictures on it to display turn taking, reinforcers available, and behavior visuals.  Check out some of these specific supports here!

But what do I do in the meantime?

I know you may be thinking so, I have this new student who will not yet approach circle time/group instruction and he/she runs around the classroom.  Or maybe you have a friend who will come to the table but is not yet ready for the demand of what you’re doing with the rest of the class (maybe they came mid-year and have no instructional skills yet).  What can you do in the meantime to help support and progress this student while still teaching your other students and maintaining classroom management? Take some baseline notes and mini assessments.  What does the student gravitate towards in your classroom? Do they like the dollhouse set? Could they play with the doll set at a desk near the worktable? Could they bring one of the dolls into circle time and hold her while she sits and use her when she stands to dance along to a song? You want to focus on taking the time to “pair” the environment with positive reinforcement.  I know as teachers and providers we feel the pressure to jump into curriculum and “work” however, if you do not take the time to pair the environment, you are going to constantly have a child running away from you and your space instead of running to it.  I had a student who first needed a visual of sit at table and then goldfish and play doh.  And you know what? For a good solid week and then spurts in between, he came to the table, received his reinforcer and used play doh.  Next, I would move a paper and bingo dotters near him to fade in more concrete type tasks and he eventually would use the materials.  Eventually he would complete some of the tasks and then get the play doh or whatever was reinforcing.  This took a long time and that’s OK.  If you have a student who won’t even approach the table or circle time area, you can put reinforcer objects on the table and allow them to approach the table, get the reinforcer and then leave again.  Do not be hard on yourself if you feel like they are “just playing” while the other kids work.  It takes a long time to build sitting and other appropriate group skills. 

Appropriate scaffolding activities for group time

I know the challenge in trying to run an entire classroom while also providing supports for students who do not yet have the same skill level.  While every child is different, some things that I have found that have been successful with many learners involve one step tasks.  Do not try and overwhelm yourself with a multiple step activity such as a craft or other learning activity if you do not have extra support and/or the student is not yet ready.  I love love love using bingo dotters and paper.  The child learns to approach the table, dot a few colors and then if that’s enough for that moment, they can leave the table and go back to play.  You can increase the demand as the child gains momentum and skill.  Maybe the rest of your group is completing a shape matching activity.  You can add hand drawn shapes to the paper and encourage your student to make marks inside the shape or along the outside, emphasizing the shape name.   Or maybe you have out play doh, the other kiddos might be making the shape out of play doh, but your student is learning to manipulate it and keep it on the table.  Another activity is put in task boxes.  Your goal is to have your student start learning how to come to the table and complete an activity.  The demand can increase as the skill level does. If you have someone question you such as, “well they’re just really playing and getting away with not doing work”.  Well.  Until you build that skill level, you are going to possibly spend your time decreasing negative behaviors that can escalate into an attention-grabbing show.  Take the time your student needs and keep data on how long they can appropriately come to the table to see when it’s appropriate to start increasing demand.  Happy Teaching!

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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